On 6th January 2010 six Coptic Christians were shot dead as they left church in the Egyptian city of Nagaa Hammadi; a Muslim police officer standing guard nearby was also hit and killed. Last Wednesday, just over one year after the murders, an emergency court found Mohamed Ahmed Hussein guilty and sentenced him to death.
It's the latest milestone in Egypt’s escalating inter-communal tensions. The shooting was the worst sectarian incident in a decade, until it was overshadowed by the brutal murder of twenty-one more Copts on New Year’s Eve. Understandably the Coptic community -which includes about 10% of all Egyptians- are rapidly viewing themselves as a people under siege in their own country (a feeling shared by many other Christians throughout the Middle East- especially in Iraq where extremist Islamist groups have been similarly targeting churches for gun and bomb attacks.) Fear has already turned to civil unrest on several occasions and the threat of another attack is now part of daily life.
Yet an execution will not solve this turmoil, nor even come close. The abhorrent nature of capital punishment is only exacerbated by a justice system a dubious as Egypt’s, where Hammadi has been denied an appeal or anything resembling international fair trial standards. Even more significantly, putting him to death may well antagonise sectarian strife further. The extremists will be provided with a new martyr, an angle for recruitment and a cause for revenge that could result in further suffering for the Coptic community. Concurrently, the serious doubts over whether Hammadi is guilty mean that his death could isolate or anger Muslim communities- the majority of whom have been overwhelmingly supportive of the Copts, in many cases holding solidarity vigils and forming human-shields outside Coptic Masses.
Sadly, that the Egyptian authorities should choose a response to sectarian violence that can generate only negligent or counter-productive effects, comes as no surprise. After all, inter-communal harmony has never been a priority for President Mubarak and his government, who have long treated Copts as second class citizens. Nobody was ever brought to justice for at least fifty-two serious sectarian incidents between 2008 and 2010, whilst numerous government policies amount to active institutional persecution.
Take for example the case in 2009 when a government-led cull of almost half a million pigs ruined the livelihoods of swine famers across the country- almost all of whom are know to be Coptic. Although the government defended the move as a response to swine flu, Middle East obersevers widely regarded it to be a sectarian act- an assertion supported by condemnation of the cull by the World Health Organisation and scientific evidence that the pigs posed no medical threat. Other institutional bigotry has been more subtle, yet equally damaging; Human Rights Watch has identified a longstanding inclusion of incitement to religious hatred in school curricula as well as in the state-controlled media. Perhaps most strikingly, despite arresting and subsequently condemning Hammadi for the January 6th 2010 shootings, the authorities still harassed and detained a group of activists for paying condolences to the families of those killed - quickly moving to supress any suggestions that official indifference or provocation played a part in the incident.
Given this, it stands to reason that last week’s death sentence to may have been fostered as little more than a distraction for the eyes of the international community. On the basis of their past form Mubarak and his enforcers will lose no sleep over whether the impending execution leads to more violence or even whether the man they kill is guilty, so long as they can divert criticism from abroad by pointing to it as evidence that they are ‘getting tough on sectarianism’.
Instead of this facade the government should be focussing on a genuine and coordinated approach to what is undeniably one of the most significant crises facing the country and indeed the broader region. This would require a clean break from disciminatory policies, thorough and timely investigation of sectarian incidents and vocal political support for the many brave Muslims who have literally put their lives on the line to defend their Coptic countrymen. It should also involve fair and open trials for those accused of sectarian crimes- with penalties of imprisonment rather than execution- lest the extremists behind the violence be given any more fertile ground for recruitment or revenge.
Anything less will only condemn Egypt to more violence, turbulance and ruined lives- affecting all of the country's communities.